After getting government paycheck support, Opera Australia institutes mass layoffs
Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA).

Imagine an opera house without an opera company to perform in it. It seems incredible, doesn’t it? But what if that opera company is so depleted it is no longer able to perform at the world class standard for which it is renowned?

That’s the bleak scenario faced by opera company workers in Australia. In the kind of move that might be expected of corporate exploiters, Opera Australia management announced a plan to slash more than 40% of its permanent and contract workforce – even after the organization received government bailout money to pay salaries for an extended period.

These unconscionable cuts would hit every part of the company, from the orchestra and choir, to hair and makeup, costumes, set construction, and stage and technical crew. Worse still, management wants to terminate the workplace agreements that set pay and conditions for those who would be left.

Activists are asking Australian Arts Minister Paul Fletcher to step in with funding to save these jobs. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) has taken Opera Australia to the country’s Fair Work Commission because the cuts were made with no consultation and no justification.

“We have proposed an alternative emergency measures agreement, where workers would be prepared to take a temporary pay cut to ease the financial pressure and retain jobs. This has worked at other major performing arts companies like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”

But the problems at Opera Australia also reveal a bigger crisis in Australian arts. For a start, how is it that a company that has been receiving JobKeeper [payment support for businesses significantly affected by the coronavirus, similar to the Paycheck Protection Program in the U.S.] is still allowed to lay people off?

And where is the financial support that the Arts Minister claimed months ago would be provided to the arts industry during the coronavirus pandemic?

How is it that Opera Australia is intent on laying off huge numbers of its employees as well as terminating the contracts of just as many, when there is meant to be money to save these jobs and protect this hugely important, world-class company?

What will it take for the minister to act?

The people who make Opera Australia run are declaring, “There are no creative arts without us.” They are raising the question of who will make the halls of the Sydney Opera House reverberate if not those who sing, who make music, and who bring these productions to life behind the stage?

They are fighting for urgent financial assistance to the company and requesting the intervention of the Arts Minister to ensure the company maintains its responsibility as the producer of world class opera in Australia. Because otherwise, the MEAA declared, “There will be no opera without us.”

They are asking supporters to sign a petition to the minister.

Orchestras offer their support

MEAA SOMA (Symphony Orchestra Musician Association) members at Australia’s leading symphony orchestras have offered their support to their colleagues at Opera Australia.

“All great cities have great orchestras—they are a part of the fabric of a cultured civilization,” said members at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “And we cannot have one of the world’s most iconic opera houses without a thriving Opera Australia Orchestra driving the performances within.”

“At the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it has been our experience that by working together, management, musicians and SOMA can achieve workable compromise in our Enterprise Agreements and the best possible outcome under these difficult circumstances,” said members at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

“We urge Opera Australia to do the same for their orchestral musicians in the Opera Australia Orchestra. The future health of the Arts sector depends upon being able to preserve jobs and skills for when we are able to perform again.”

“The musicians in Australian orchestras are of the highest caliber,” said members at the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. “We hone our specialized skills over years of hard work, practice and effort. Those of us masterful enough to secure a position in one of our fine orchestras has done so because they have proven they work as part of a team. Just like a sporting team we are not easily replaced or substituted by understudies on gameday.”

MEAA SOMA members at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra [OA] wrote: “Given that Opera Australia gives upwards of 700 performances per year to more than 600,000 patrons and is proudly Australia’s biggest arts employer with nearly 1500 singers, musicians, technicians and administrators on the payroll, it is simply too big to fail. That the Sydney Opera House, one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks may soon be without an opera orchestra is unthinkable.”

“We acknowledge that OA, like arts companies worldwide, is struggling with the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic yet we find it puzzling that the management of OA has not sought to work collaboratively with its employees to find a collective solution,” wrote members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO). “Here at WASO we have been working closely with our management since the beginning of the pandemic and together we have found ways to deal with the unfolding situation and the uncertain future ahead.”

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra members said: “The success of Opera Australia, as the preeminent arts organization in Australia, is reliant upon having a dedicated orchestra of permanent, expert, opera musicians in OAO [Opera Australia Orchestra]. Any move to cut this expert orchestral team or to further casualize the workforce would destroy the threads of expertise that wind their way through the company. It would destroy the very thing that makes the company great.”

“The artists of the Opera Australia Orchestra, alongside those artists in the chorus, set-design, wigs and wardrobe etc., are among the finest in the world who have trained for years to reach the pinnacle of their profession,” wrote MEAA SOMA members at Orchestra Victoria. “The generational knowledge held by these artists is one of the great strengths of cultural institutions such as Opera Australia. Any loss of these artists will create a significant artistic vacuum to the company, and to our Australian cultural life.”

The Guardian, The Workers’ Weekly



Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance: The union and industry advocate for Australia's creative professionals.